By DIANE ACKERMAN for the NYTimes
I’ve always loved scuba diving and the cell-tickling feel of being underwater, though it poses unique frustrations. Alone, but with others, you may share the same sights and feelings, but you can’t communicate well.
There are few ways to convey joy, amazement or thrill. How many divers know American Sign Language? The vocabulary of scuba talk is small and inadequate, circling around the transactional analyst’s bywords, I’m O.K. Are you O.K.? One can also signal: I’m in trouble, I’m low on air, I’m going to surface, Look at that, I’m cold, Danger over there, My ears haven’t pressurized, Stay where you are — but little more.
“Isn’t that fish on the rock face spending his whole life guarding a minute territory mind-blowing?” is just as unsayable as “I’ve got to go to the toilet.” Or “My throat feels parched from the wheeze of the regulator.” Or “Those brown angelfish are hanging like flak in the water.”
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Artwork by Micah Lidberg
I think some people may dive, in part, for the thick layers of quiet and the luxury of not having to converse.
Once, offshore in Jamaica, I swam through a variety of vividly colored fish, including some I’d never seen before, and was so spellbound that one hand automatically touched my chest and my eyes teared. My guide’s eyes questioned me through the fishbowl of his face mask. There was no way to signal that I wasn’t hurt or frightened, but jubilant, merely glad to the brink of tears. How do you scuba-sign wonder?
Are you in trouble? he signaled.
No, no, I answered emphatically. I’m O.K. I put an open palm over my heart, then made a stirring motion in the water. My heart is stirred, and my eyes … I made a rain-falling movement beside one eye with my fingers.
Surface? he motioned, his knitted brow adding a question mark.
No! I signaled stiffly. I’m O.K. Wait. Wait. I thought for a moment, then made the sign French chefs use in commercials, the gestural Esperanto for “This dish is perfection,” making a purse of my fingers and exploding open the purse just after it touched my mouth. Then I swept a hand wide.
Even with the regulator stuffed in his mouth and his eyes distorted behind the face plate, he made an exaggerated smile, yawning around the mouthpiece. He nodded his head in a magnified “Yes!” then made an O.K. sign and led me deeper, using his compass and surfacing once to check his direction by sighting the boat.
After a 10-minute swim, we suddenly came to a maze of underwater canyons thick with enormous sponges and coral fans, around which schools of circus-colored fish zigzagged. Plump purple sea pens with feathery quills stood in sand inkwells. Tiny tube worms — shaped like Christmas trees, feather dusters, maypole streamers, parasols — jutted out of the coral heads. Sea relationships are sometimes like those in a Russian novel; a worm enters the larder of a fine, respectable coral to steal its food, and just stays there, never being evicted. I moved my palm over a red-and-white striped parasol, and in a flash it folded up its umbrella and dragged it back inside the coral. It’s a game divers love to play with tube worms: abracadabra, and the tube worm vanishes.
On a coral butte just in front of us, a dark sea whip jutted out between the canyon walls, its Medusa-like hair straggling in the current. I laughed. That sea whip’s hair is just like my own.
Then I remembered: We’re mainly salt water, we carry the ocean inside us. The simple, stupefying truth that, as a woman, I am a minute ocean, in the dark tropic of whose womb eggs lay coded as roe, floating in the sea that wet-nursed us all, moved me deeply. I pulled my mask up and washed my face with salt water, fitted it back on and exhaled through my nose to clear it.
From then on, I was hooked, and often returned to the sea to re-experience the visible links of that invisible chain.